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IN THIS ISSUE:
“SERVING OTHERS” – “The lost art of CHAMPIONS”
In his wonderful new book, The Way Of The Champion, sports psychologist and colleague Jerry Lynch outlines and teaches the personal and behavioral characteristics that lead to winning, both in and outside of sports. The Tao or “way” of real champions is very basic and powerful, yet not that easy to implement for many athletes. This is probably because many of the principles and lessons reviewed in Jerry’s book are quite contradictory to what we find going on in today’s sporting world. Sadly, true champions are all too rare at the many levels that competitive sports are played.
The true champion is not someone who is narrowly defined by his/her MVP status. He/she is not just someone who might consistently make the ESPN highlight reel or end up in the sports pages of your local newspaper. He/she is not always the athlete who is consistently the team’s offensive or defensive star. He is not the one who hits the most home runs, scores the most goals, earns the most money or garners the most endorsements.
Tremendous athletic ability and talent may give everyone who is on the outside watching the illusion that, on the surface you’re a champion. However, your athletic accomplishments and stats are just that, a simple illusion of who you really are as a person and what you’re made of. Your athletic ability is just one small aspect of you, much like an outer shell. Being a true champion requires something far deeper and more powerful, something that takes a great deal more character, discipline and strength to achieve than simply basking in the limelight of your physical accomplishments. The true champion is selfless. He/she naturally puts himself last. This individual manifests an “unconditional willingness to put the team or group before any of his/her individual or self needs.” In sum, the true champion serves others.
In this issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter I would like to focus on this often ignored Tao principle of champions, SELFLESSNESS or the characteristic of SERVING OTHERS.
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “The selfless athlete”
PARENTS’ CORNER - “Serving others in your child’s sports”
COACH’S OFFICE -“Creating an atmosphere of serving on your team”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “The Sword of Damocles”
“The selfless athlete”
The selfless athlete is not caught up with the typical questions that burn in the brains of the vast majority of competitors: “What’s in it for me?” “How many points/goals/touchdowns can I score?” “Will I be the one starting?” “Will I get all the attention that I deserve?” “Am I getting the most playing time?” “Will I be the MVP?” Instead, the selfless athlete asks him/herself far more meaningful questions. “How can I give to my teammates?” “How can I make those around me better?” “What can I do to help the team be successful?” “How can I contribute to this sport?” And, a question that would blow most athletes’ minds, “How can I give to my opponents?”
According to Jerry Lynch, selflessness is an essential ingredient in team harmony, and without this all important team quality, there can never be any great individual success. Why?
The most successful teams in and out of sports play together as a team. There’s no question that it’s never the best team that always wins, but the team that plays best together. All the players on a championship squad intuitively understand this concept and know that you can’t get to winning through individualism. Selfish behavior always detracts from the team’s day to day performance and overall mission. NOT occasionally, NOT sometimes, NOT often, but ALWAYS! The perennially top ranked University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball program understands this concept well. Perhaps that’s why all of their players have nothing more than a number on the back of their jerseys. The implication is clear: What’s on the front of the jersey, “Connecticut,” the team name, is much bigger and far more important than what is on the back of the jersey, i.e. the individual player’s number.
Remember that old cliché’, “there’s no “I” in TEAM.” The problem with sports in our country is that when you look at our most visible role models, our professional athletes, you see far too many “I”s and too few real TEAMS. Too many pro athletes have a “superstar” mentality. That is, they think that just because they have extraordinary athletic ability, they alone are God’s gift to creation and are free to act accordingly. Towards this end they are selfish, narcissistic and exhibitionistic, believing that the team is secondary to, and should revolve around them. They believe that the rules of the group don’t really apply to them and instead, they should have their own set of rules that are sprinkled with a heavy dose of preferential treatment. Even the expression, “franchise player” reflects this over-inflated value of the individual and breeds an attitude of selfishness. If you are a franchise player, then the team gets built around you, instead of molding all of the individual players together into a superstar team. This is completely backwards and just like having the tail wag the dog.
There’s no better example of this over-inflation of the individual than the rather (unintended) humorous interview that former 76’er star, Allen Iverson gave to the sports media in the spring of 2002 when they asked about the controversy between him and then Sixer’s coach, Larry Brown regarding Iverson missing team practices. Here’s AI’s abbreviated response to Brown’s outrageous demands that Allen attend all the team practices.
“Practice! Practice! Are you kidding me? "If I can't practice, I can't practice. If I'm hurt, I'm hurt. It's not about that. It's easy to sum it up when you talk about practice. We're sitting here, and I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're talking about practice. I mean listen, we're sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, but we're talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last but we're talking about practice man. How silly is that? We’re talking about practice! I know I'm supposed to be there. I know I'm supposed to lead by example. I know that. I know it's important, but we're talking about practice.” (In response to a question about whether Iverson needs to be there to help his teammates get better), “How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing? They are supposed to be used to playing with me anyway. So my game is going to deteriorate if I don't practice with those guys?"
With all due respect to AI, he’s an amazing player, probably one of the best to ever play in his position and he truly leaves it all on the court whenever he competes in games. No one questions his desire to win, his heart or work ethic in games. However, his response and attitude have absolutely nothing to do with “team” and everything to do with “AI.” Iverson is a phenomenal basketball player and a future Hall of Famer. However, his way is NOT the way of a champion. Sadly, this attitude is adopted by many athletes at the professional, college, high school and junior level. It’s the “ME FIRST” attitude and the bottom line: This “me first” attitude always corrupts the team’s chances for that championship.
Phil Jackson, former Chicago Bulls and present LA Laker’s coach knows all about franchise players, superstars and what it takes to become a champion. In fact, for years, Jackson has been a master at convincing the best athletes in the world, like MJ and Shaq, to set aside “I” for “we” in order to achieve team success. For example, when Michael Jordan finally began to see the importance of helping his Bull’s teammates lift the level of their games, then and only then did he start winning NBA championship rings. This is one of the marks of a real champion: He/she understands the all important responsibility to his/her teammates to make them better.
Here’s the really weird thing about concentrating on team, giving and being selfless, rather than being caught up with focusing on “I” and always trying to get for yourself. The more you give, the more you will ultimately receive in return. According to Tao principles, those who place themselves last will be brought forward. When Jordan and the Bulls began to win those NBA Championships, MJ ended up being named the MVP in several of them. When you sacrifice for and give to others, inevitably the glory will seek you out.
This paradox of the more you give, the more you’ll get is not at all that different from what I’ve talked about in previous newsletters about winning: Those athletes who go into games focused on and obsessed with the outcome and winning, rarely do. Winning is something that will often come to you when your focus is completely off of the outcome and instead, on the right things, i.e. playing your role, staying in the moment, keeping loose and relaxed. However, when you selfishly focus on yourself, your need to win and your stats, your performance will consistently suffer and you will bring those around you down. Why? The strength of any team rests in its’ group members’ willingness to surrender their individual goals and gain for the future success of the entire group. It’s only through this willingness to put your needs behind those of your team that great success is possible.
Unfortunately much of what I’m talking about here is so much easier said then done. If you’re a high achieving, competitive individual like most dedicated athletes, then much of your accomplishments have come as a direct result of YOU busting YOUR butt and focusing on YOUR goals. It’s extremely difficult in today’s highly competitive sports arena to suddenly be concerned about your teammates’ and opponents’ welfare. Let’s face it, when you’re sitting the bench while another teammate is getting all of your playing time and limelight, it’s really tough to elevate the “good” of the team over your own needs and happiness. In fact, the very nature of competition makes it really hard to be selfless and to think of others. For most of us, competition is viewed as a battle to get to the top and, in the process, beat out everyone else. In this battle, the headset is all about the individual: “every man for himself.”
The selfishness that underlies this “me first” mentality is fueled by fear and insecurity. The fear and insecurity is based on the self-limiting and mistaken belief that the “pie” of success is limited in size, and that if someone else gets a big piece, then that means your piece will be that much smaller. This insecurity and fear-driven mentality will lead you to be jealous of those teammates who get more playing time and/or recognition than you. It will fuel your anger at opponents who beat you. If left unchecked, these darker, but quite normal feelings will lead you to say and do really stupid, embarrassing things that will ultimately, assuming you have your head on straight, leave you feeling disgusted with yourself.
A personal example that I have to admit, even to this day, I’m not exactly proud of: When I was 16 years old, I was one of the top junior tennis players in my area. One weekend I convinced a friend to be my partner in an out-of-town doubles tournament. Despite the fact that Mike wasn’t a very strong player, I thought it would be fun to play with him, especially since the tournament was in a round robin format and that win or lose, we’d still get to play the same number of matches. I won the singles part of the tournament and everything was fine in the doubles until we made it all the way to the final round and were playing for a chance to win the championship.
Not being as experienced a player as I was, Mike got himself very nervous before the final match was about to start. In no time his anxiety quickly tightened his muscles up, wrecked his timing and disrupted his shot execution. As a result, he began to make a lot of unforced errors, missing easy put-aways and double faulting a ton. As his miscues mounted and threatened our (more correctly, MY) chances of emerging victorious, I found myself reflexively getting angry with him. I let him know that I wasn’t happy with his mistakes by making comments, getting openly frustrated and giving him dirty looks. I had never seen this uglier side of myself come out quite like this. I was being “real supportive,” and a great “team player!” NOT!!!! Of course, the more upset and angry I got with him, the worse he played. DUHHHHHH!
Understand that this is not rocket science here. If you are a better, faster, stronger and more talented athlete than many of the other members on your squad, then your job, NO, your responsibility is to help lift your teammates’ level of play up another notch. It’s up to you to inspire them and help them bring out their best. You DO this by being supportive, positive, caring and forgiving. You do this by acting like and modeling being a champion. You DON’T do this by behaving like a selfish, insensitive baby and kicking your teammates when they screw up or get down, which was exactly how I was acting with Mike!
For some strange and undeserving reason, we managed to pull the match out and win the tournament despite my best attempts to sabotage us. We each got two big trophies for our “championship” efforts. However, what has always stayed with me from that match and left me feeling embarrassed and a bit ashamed was how I conducted myself and how I treated my buddy. I had instinctively acted like a complete jerk when I felt that my chances for victory were being threatened by my teammate. Unfortunately, being an adolescent male, I wasn’t highly evolved enough to even begin to understand what was going on inside of me. I think I was even too embarrassed to appropriately apologize to him. Supposedly we won and all was forgiven and forgotten. However, while I have certainly forgiven myself for being young, overly competitive and immature, I have not forgotten the experience. My actions were very instructive. I was a miserable teammate and I, rather than Mike, was the one who almost cost us the championship. Selfishness is at the opposite end of the street from the selfless way of a champion.
Surrendering your self-interests for the good of the team, regardless of how big the team is, according to Jerry Lynch is similar to a good investment. By serving others and putting the team first, you are investing in long term success that will ultimately make you far more successful than if you had decided to selfishly go it on your own. Like a good investment, it may take you time before you can see any real dividends or payoff. It requires tremendous patience and trust. Through the process it’s perfectly normal to worry that you won’t get what you feel you truly deserve. However, in the long run, this higher road of selflessness and of serving others will transform you in ways that selfishness never could. Giving is the only real way that you can begin to get in meaningful ways. Serving others is the only way that you can become a true champion.
Understand that regardless of the WAY that you choose to follow, you will always have a profound impact on your teammates and opponents. If you’re a selfish, attention-seeking show-boat, you will clearly communicate these qualities to all who are in your presence. In the process you will also turn off your teammates and coaches, disgust your opponents and demonstrate to the crowd that you are seriously lacking in character, style and class. If, on the other hand you are carefully tuned into other’s feelings on the team, demonstrate respect and understanding for your teammates, coaches, opponents and fans, and selflessly put your needs behind the needs of the team, then those around you will have a very different view of your character. What kind of impact do you want to have on others? How would you really like others to see you?
A 14 year old tennis player is involved in a close, hard fought match. She wins the first set and goes up a break in the second when suddenly, the tenor of the match dramatically changes. She plays a long point which she eventually wins when her opponent’s shot just misses the sideline. The ball is clearly out by an inch or so. However, immediately after she calls the ball “out,” her opponent angrily challenges the call. “That was in,” she yells, “that’s a bad call.” The 14 year old holds her ground, trying to remain calm. “No, I’m sorry. I saw that ball out and there’s a mark to prove it.” Her opponent looked at where she was pointing and angrily exclaimed, “No way! That’s not where the ball landed. That’s from another point. That ball was clearly in and YOU ARE A CHEATER!”
Despite the fact that she still took the point and knew that the ball was indeed out, the 14 year old was clearly shaken up by her opponent’s accusations. She couldn’t get it out of her head that her opponent thought that she was a cheater. Although a lot of girls on the circuit deliberately cheated when they played, some even with their parents’ awareness and unspoken approval, she had never done that. That was not who she was as an athlete or as a person. In her mind, cheating was for cowards. Cheating was stealing and it corrupted the competition. However, she was totally distracted by the bad feelings that were dancing around in her head, interfering with her focusing on the match.
As a consequence of her distraction, the momentum of the match slowly began to shift as she lost her intensity and began to make more and more unforced errors. She stopped playing aggressively and let her opponent back into it. Even as her opponent tied things up and the match went into the third and final set, the 14 year old still couldn’t get the “cheater” accusation out of her head. She lost the deciding set and the match. When the girls went up to the net to shake hands, her accuser then apologized to the 14 year old for calling her a cheater!
Want to guess why? She was probably feeling guilty because she was the one who had really cheated. This is a selfish player who had used this kind of dishonest gamesmanship before. She had correctly sensed that the match was slipping away from her and that her opponent was going to beat her fair and square. Rather than having respect for her opponent, herself and the game, she was driven by selfishness and insecurity to cheat. This kind of disrespectful, self-serving behavior is not the way of a champion. She may have “won” the match on paper, but she was far from a winner in the eyes of her 14 year old opponent, the viewing crowd and, deep down, herself. Remember, at the end of the day, when you are at home alone, the one person you will never be able to completely fool is the “man/woman in the mirror,” yourself. (my apologies for the sexist nature of this old poem)
“The Man in the Mirror”
When you get all you want as you struggle for self, and the world makes you king for a day, then go to the mirror and look at yourself and see what that man has to say.
For it isn't your mother, your father or wife whose judgment upon you must pass, but the man, whose verdict counts most in your life is the one staring back from the glass.
He's the fellow to please, never mind all the rest. For he's with you right to the end, And you've passed your most difficult test, if the man in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum, And think you're a wonderful guy, But the man in the glass says you're only a bum, If you can't look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world, down the highway of years, and take pats on the back as you pass. But your final reward will be heartache and tears, If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
“Serving others in your child’s sports”
OK. So you want your child to be happy and healthy. You want your child to excel. You want your child to experience as much success as possible on the court, field or track. Good for you! There’s no problem there. The more important question is how will you go about doing this? Do you know what the very best way is to insure that your child has a happy, healthy and successful sports experience? Do you know the “do’s” and “don’ts” of creating a champion in your home? It all boils down to that Tao principle mentioned earlier: Selflessness. You have to make sure that you are able to steer as clear as possible from the natural urge to be selfish when it comes to your child’s sport.
Now I’m not referring to the more common meanings of selfish that the word usually conjures up. That kind of selfish behavior is overt and blatant. The selfishness that I’m speaking about is far subtler than that. It’s the self-centeredness that comes from being too invested in your child’s athletic success. It’s that powerful inner need that YOU feel to have your child win/excel no matter what. When your feelings about your child’s performance become too important, when they begin to eclipse your son or daughter’s own interests and investment in the sport, then you have lost your perspective and, as a result, you’ll lose touch with your child’s needs and well being.
The kind of selfishness I refer to here masquerades as care and concern for your child. You look like you’re doing all these wonderful things for your child. You’re getting her extra lessons. You’re paying for advanced camps and training. You are spending gobs of your own time and energy working out with him. You’ve even paid for a speed and conditioning coach. With all you’ve invested it’s very easy for you to say, “Look at all I’ve done for him/her.” But the more important question here is, who are you really doing all of this good stuff for?
Are you really serving your child when you do this? Are you contributing to his/her personal happiness and love for the sport? Are you giving a true gift of love, no strings attached or is this somehow a business deal that you’ve made where you expect a good return on your investment. When you directly or indirectly remind your son or daughter how much you’ve done for them, are you being selfless and serving them? When you show your disappointment at their poor play or freely offer your criticism, who are you doing this for? Understand that you are only serving yourself when you respond to your child’s mistakes and failures in this way. You may protest and say, “Yes, but I’m just helping him get tougher, faster and better by doing this. Besides, isn’t that my job as an interested, loving parent?”
When it comes to your children’s sports, this isn’t your job. Your job is to be unconditionally loving, supportive, kind and understanding. Your job is to be an appropriate role model. It is not to push, criticize or attempt to forcefully mold your son or daughter into a winner the way that you think they should be. This is not in their best interests and is certainly not serving them. One of the more common blind spots that we have as parents is to impose our model of the world directly onto our children. We tend to project how we would be if we were in their situation and then we expect them to act the way we would. For example, “If I had your talent, then I’d be practicing 24/7, 365.” “Remember son, I know you won the silver medal, but I watched that match and there were several things you did wrong. You never want to settle for second place,” (at least that’s how I run my business). “When I was your age, I’d be getting extra help every chance I could.”
Serving your child in his/her sport is about quietly listening to and observing him/her and being willing to follow your son or daughter’s lead. Let them have responsibility for and control over the sport. Let them decide where they want to go and the goals that they want to accomplish. Let them determine how much and how hard they want to practice. In the process, your job is to supportively facilitate things for them without your own agenda getting in the way.
Serve the team that your child plays on. Help the coach and the other players. Distance yourself from the playing time issue. If you get overly caught up with your son or daughter’s PT, which is very easy to do, you are no longer thinking about the good of the team, you are thinking about your own needs and those of your child. Help your child understand that on every winning team, every player has a role to play. You might not like the role, but for the team to be successful, every player must do that job as assigned by the coach to the very best of his/her ability. If PT is a serious issue, then help your child figure out a constructive way to approach the coach to learn what he/she might do to improve.
Along these same lines, serve the team by being a good team player yourself. If your child has to sit the bench, help him/her develop a positive attitude about it. Do not fuel the easy-to-fall into selfishness of putting down the players that are starting in front of your son or daughter. In the stands be sure that you cheer for everyone on the team, especially when your child is sitting on the bench. To be fair, sometimes this is very difficult to do as a parent. However, it’s a must if you want to walk the way of a champion.
Serve the coach by supporting him/her. Don’t bad-mouth him/her to your child or other parents. Support team functions. Volunteer your time when possible. Educate new parents to the team’s policies and the coach’s ways. Please understand that I am not advocating that you adopt this stance if the coach is extremely negative or abusive. That’s a completely different situation where your child’s psychological and emotional needs far outweigh the coach’s needs and wants.
Finally, understand that taking the higher road and walking the way of a champion as a parent is a very difficult path to follow. Being human you will slip and fall many times. What counts, however are not the slips and falls, but how often and quickly you can get back on your feet following the right way.
“Creating an atmosphere of service on your team”
(The following information is excerpted and summarized from Jerry Lynch’s book, Creative Coaching – Human Kinetics, pub.)
According to a Chinese proverb, to rule is to serve, and to serve is to rule. This is also true in coaching. By assuming a role of service with your athletes – being a good role model and offering them opportunities to realize their potential in a safe, nurturing environment – you become a more effective coach. Most coaches don’t approach their job with this kind of service mentality. Instead, they approach their role strictly as leaders who see their “followers” in that light. It’s the athlete’s job to follow, NO MATTER WHAT! When an athlete fails to do this, then he/she has a problem and that individual is dealt with by being booted off the team or confined to the bench.
Coaches who serve don’t approach their job with this heavy handed headset. They don’t see the coach-athlete relationship as a one way street where it’s the athlete’s job to do for the coach. Instead, they continually think about “doing for” their athletes in relation to systematically helping them develop, grow and improve both as players and as people. Serving your athletes in this way creates an atmosphere of safety in your program and therefore allows them the freedom to take the risks necessary for growth and development. This, in turn, serves the best interests of the athletes and the team in ultimately achieving their potential.
Keep in mind that serving does NOT mean catering to every wish an athlete may have. The athletes on your team are NOT in charge, and you do not need to win their approval by being compliant to their every wish and desire. Such catering is not service and does not help athletes grow and develop. On the contrary! Coaches who continually give in to their athletes and who, in essence allow them to control the team, end up stunting their players development and insuring that the team’s season will be a disastrous one.
Successful coaches who model an attitude of service (how can I help you get better as an athlete-person find that their athletes are more open to approaching their coaches for advice and guidance. As a consequence, athletes are more likely to give their best efforts to these coaches both on the field and in the classroom. Coaches who assume such a service role will also discover that their athletes will reciprocate and strive to do their best. The following are some of Jerry Lynch’s cornerstones of coaching service which lead to developing a winning team environment:
NURTURE AND ENCOURAGE – Great coaches encourage their athletes to grow both on and off the field. They take an interest in their players’ academics and home lives as well as with their athletes’ performance and training. By taking the time to check in on each athlete, you as the coach will stay aware of what is happening with them in their lives. Taking this kind of nurturance and interest in your athletes’ lives will ignite the power of passion in them, fueling their motivation, enthusiasm, energy and love for the game.
COMMUNICATE – You best serve your athletes by keeping the lines of communication open between you and them, and taking the time to keep in contact with them on and off the field. Keep in mind that this “taking an interest” in your players does not involve crossing the lines and appropriate boundaries so important to maintaining a healthy coach-athlete relationship. If the subject matter of your discussions with your players moves beyond your expertise and comfort level, guide your athlete to seek professional input from a competent sports psychologist, counselor or other well-trained specialist.
ASK QUESTIONS - If you want to effectively serve your players, then ask them the following four questions in individual meetings, probably best done at the beginning of your season: What would it take for you to play at a higher level? What would you like me to do to help you? Are you feeling fulfilled in this program? Is there some way that the coaching staff could be more helpful? These kinds of questions will help your athletes get focused on raising the bar and going for it. They will also powerfully communicate that you as a coach are interested in their well being and growth. Be sure to listen to their answers with respect. Discuss their responses and the issues that they bring up with your staff to get their input on how to best address the athlete’s needs in each case.
REMAIN FIRM/ACT FAIR - Keep in mind that an important corollary of nurturing and encouraging your athletes by listening to their concerns, feedback and criticism is to remain firm. Do not allow your behaviors to be governed by whether your players like you or not. Coaching should never be a popularity contest. Trying to please all of your athletes will quickly turn you into an indecisive, ineffective coach. Weigh your athletes’ suggestions but always hold on to your own values and clearly communicate your team’s purpose. Do not confuse serving your athletes with being a slave to them. Just because some of your athletes may have criticisms of your program does not mean that you necessarily need to dramatically alter what you are doing. Along these same lines, it is absolutely necessary that you maintain an air of fairness in your interactions with your players. Showing favoritism does not create an atmosphere of safety or service and will ultimately sabotage your best coaching efforts.
USE POSITIVE FEEDBACK - Use compliments and positive feedback in relation to your athletes’ efforts. Giving athletes timely praise and attention is crucial for developing their self-confidence and fueling their motivation. Be sure to practice catching your athletes doing things right. Consistent negative feedback and criticism without any positive feedback will eventually make your players feel inadequate, unworthy and not good enough. Whether you mean to or not, it will communicate to them that you don’t believe that they have what it takes to get the job done. In addition, constant negativity from the coach will eventually undermine your athletes’ motivation.
LEARN TO STEP ASIDE – Making time to serve your athletes means frequently asking yourself, “How can I help this athlete or situation?” Understand, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to fix every problem. Repair work may be needed at times, but many creative coaches find that they serve best by stepping aside and getting out of the way to allow athletes to work out their own problems or to come to their own solutions. Too many coaches have a tendency to micromanage situations. This is a trap you need to avoid. The best coaches, like the best waiters and the best teachers, are often those you hardly notice. They quietly do what is necessary, when it is necessary and otherwise they leave you alone.
SERVE AND BE SERVED – Instill in your athletes a sense of their own greatness, and in return you and your players will benefit from working in a nurturing environment. When I work with a coach who aspires to serve, I notice that his/her athletes are more willing to follow in those footsteps. If the coach models an attitude of selflessness and giving, then before long a healthy give-and-take culture develops on the team as his/her athletes follow this same model.
DR G’S TEACHING TALES
“The Sword of Damocles”
By James Baldwin The Book of Virtues
There once was a king named Dionysius who ruled in Syracuse, the richest city in Sicily. He lived in a fine palace where there were many beautiful and costly things, and he was waited upon by a host of servants who were always ready to do his bidding.
Naturally, because Dionysius had so much wealth and power, there were many in Syracuse who envied his good fortune. Damocles was one of these. He was one of Dionysius's best friends, and he was always saying to him, "How lucky you are! You have everything anyone could wish for. You must be the happiest man in the world."
One day Dionysius grew tired of hearing such talk. "Come now," he said, "do you really think I'm happier than everyone else?"
"But of course you are," Damocles replied. "Look at the great treasures you possess, and the power you hold. You have not a single worry in the world. How could life be any better?"
"Perhaps you would like to change places with me," said Dionysius.
"Oh, I would never dream of that," said Damocles. "But if I could only have your riches and your pleasures for one day, I should never want any greater happiness."
"Very well,” Dionysuis said. “Trade places with me for just one day, and you shall have them."
And so, the next day, Damocles was led to the palace, and all the servants were instructed to treat him as their master. They dressed him in royal robes, and placed on his head a crown of gold. He sat down at a table in the banquet hall, and rich foods were set before him. Nothing was wanting that could give him pleasure. There were costly wines, and beautiful flowers, and rare perfumes, and delightful music. He rested himself among soft cushions, and felt he was the happiest man in all the world.
"Ah, this is the life," he sighed to Dionysius, who sat at the other end of the long table. "I've never enjoyed myself so much."
And as he raised a cup to his lips, he lifted his eyes toward the ceiling. What was that dangling above him, with its point almost touching his head?
Damocles stiffened. The smile faded from his lips, and his face turned ashy pale. His hands trembled. He wanted no more food, no more wine, no more music. He only wanted to be out of the palace, far away, he cared not where. For directly above his head hung a sword, held to the ceiling by only a single horsehair. Its sharp blade glittered as it pointed right between his eyes. He started to jump up and run, but stopped himself, frightened that any sudden move might snap the thin thread and bring the sword down. He sat frozen to his chair.
"What is the matter, my friend?" Dionysius asked. "You seem to have lost your appetite."
"That sword! That sword!" whispered Damocles. "Don't you see it?"
"Of course I see it," said Dionysius. "I see it every day. It always hangs over my head, and there is always the chance someone or something may cut the slim thread. Perhaps one of my own advisors will grow jealous of my power and try to kill me. Or someone may spread lies about me, to turn people against me. It may be that a neighboring kingdom will send an army to seize this throne. Or I might make an unwise decision that will bring my downfall. If you want to be a leader, you must be willing to accept these risks. They come with the power, you see."
"Yes, I do see," said Damocles. "I see now that I was mistaken, and that you have much to think about besides your riches and fame. Please take your place, and let me go back to my own house."
And as long as he lived, Damocles never again wanted to change places, even for a moment, with the king.
Responsibility and service to others entails much risk. When you decide to be a leader, when you decide to stand up for what you believe in, when you commit yourself to truly go for it, when you decide to stick up for the down-trodden, to do that which is right, then you always incur much risk. First there is the risk of failure, then the risk of ridicule and embarrassment, there’s the risk of ostracism – of your friends suddenly turning against you. regardless of the risk however, the champion’s way is always to trust in him/herself, to take responsibility, to follow heart and passion and go for it, regardless of others’ reactions or the potential negative consequences. Remember, nothing great is ever accomplished without standing up and stepping outside of your comfort zone.